The Babbo Revolution

When I think about Boston, food is not usually the first thing that comes to mind, even though they call it Beantown, and Parker House rolls and Boston cream pie and clam chowder are all on my radar screen and are undeniably delicious.

I think of Boston as a history town. The city where the American Revolution, and therefore America, really, was brewed into being. It is the birthplace of Franklin, a place so ripe with the ideals of freedom, it’s hard to see it for everything else it’s become in the last 200+ years.

But all that may be changing, because I just ate my best meal of the year in Boston, and a New Yorker was responsible. Until the very day I ate there, I had no idea Mario Batali has established an outpost of his famed Babbo Enoteca in Beantown. Babbo Pizzeria is in the Financial District of Boston, right downtown on Fan Pier. It’s not North End Italian, it’s not Union Oyster House (or Neptune Oyster, for you hipsters), and it’s not the Parker House Hotel, but you should make room for it on your Boston itinerary, because it is magnificent.

Because our party of three (which grew to five once word spread) didn’t have a reservation, we were seated at the antipasti bar, and I didn’t mind one bit. In fact, being seated right in front of an enormous leg of prosciutto periodically being sliced for peoples’ appetizer plates suited me juuuuuust fine, thank you very much. This joint is huge, and can cater to large parties, but the intimacy of the marble-topped bar suited us very nicely.

Let’s start with the most delicious appetizer just about ever – a play on a spicy tuna roll, Italian style. The tuna crostini was tiny, brunoised cubes of fresh tuna tossed in a very light but sharp mayonnaise spiced with Calabrian chili, plus roasted peppers. There was heat, but also roundness, with just enough acid, and the crunchy, airy bread and gorgeously green, peppery olive oil drizzled over the top made this stunning dish sing. We each should have ordered our own, really. This dish blew my taste buds out of the back of my head and they did a quick lap around the block before coming back to me.

A perfect plate of sliced prosciutto provided the salt and fat any good starter course requires. This was some of the most meltingly tender prosciutto I’ve ever had, its flavor more refined than supermarket varieties – less salty, and more luxurious in its fat content.

Sweet corn and fregola was a small dish of a cold corn salad made with a small, spherical Sardinian pasta that’s toasted before it’s cooked, for a, well, toasty quality that paired really beautifully with the sweetness of the summer corn and the sharpness of scallions. More excellent olive oil anchored the salad in fruity earthiness.

My cocktails, which were so boozy that I needed only two (but still drank three), were called Sardinian iced tea. You know how Long Island iced teas have no actual tea in them and are renowned for being 100% alcohol? Well, this combo of Prosecco, lime, and Amaro packed much of the same punch in an alluring, not sweet but incredibly complex glass. They were delicious.

All three of our original party chose pastas for our mains, though pizza is the specialty here. I had this harebrained idea, once two more colleagues joined our group, that Carrie and I might split a pizza, but that was sheer madness. We never could have enjoyed dessert had we done it.

Spaghetti Carbonara from Babbo is a dish I have literally dreamed of for years. Over a decade ago, a writer for Gourmet Magazine (RIP, sweet friend) wrote a piece about his daughter’s love for this dish, and I saved it, in my family recipe binder, and have obsessed about eating it ever since. This night, my dream came true. At Babbo, carbonara does NOT mean alfredo sauce with bacon it in. It’s the real Roman deal here, pancetta with black pepper, pecorino Romano cheese and egg, with the small addition of scallion, which keeps this rich dish from being overly heavy. At home, I substitute green peas for the scallion, but this wasn’t a huge departure from what I do. The pasta was markedly al dente, with good chew, and the luxe richness of the egg yolk coated the small bits of cured pig with a decadent mouth feel and perfect savory bite. It’s a slam-dunk of a dish, and the best carbonara I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Also: NO CREAM. Thank God.

As much as I loved my pasta, I think Carrie’s beat it. I hope that isn’t a blasphemous statement, given how long I’ve been wanting that plate of carbonara, but the bucatini all’Amatriciana was a complete work of art. Guanciale, which is cured pork cheek, is a more robust flavor than pancetta, and pared ith red onion, tomato, and piquant pecorino romano cheese, this was a powerfully flavorful dish of harmony. Holy God, get to Boston NOW and get this in your life.

Not to be outdone, though, Carol’s rigatoni alla norma was no slouch. A loose tomato sauce with punchy basil, sweet roasted eggplant, the slight heat of those Calabrian chiles, and freshly made, pillowy and milky ricotta cheese coated the al dente rigatoni in lavish sweetness and savory depth. This was another masterpiece, frankly. Asked to choose between the three, I’m not positive I could.

Babbo wasn’t finished impressing us, though, because dessert was coming. While Carol’s blueberry crostada was pretty de riguer, with vanilla gelato and crunchy granola topping, Carrie’s affogato sung with deep, rich espresso and strong notes of vanilla to counter the coffee.

But my sweet corn coppetta was the winner of this round. Listen, making ice cream out of corn when it is at the peak of its summer sweetness is just good business. This had the flavor of perfect kettle corn, but cold and creamy, and was accented with tart blackberries and the crumbling, dry corn flavor of polenta cake to compliment the texture. None of us could stop dipping our spoons into this cup of summer flavor – it was extraordinary.

Once our additional colleagues Nikki and Ali joined us, they copied our orders, so I never got to try the octopus in limoncello vinaigrette or fried squash blossoms, or pizza topped with sausage and escarole. But I’ll be back to this spectacular eatery, which I unreservedly give a 10 out of 10 on the BHS scale, because while it may not be quintessentially Bostonian, Babbo IS the restaurant of my personal revolution. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


The Syracuse Café Tailor-made for Instagram

We’re all stuck in this weird era of social media having become so integral to the success of restaurants that sometimes, the aesthetics become more important than the flavors. I never thought it would come to this, but here we are.

When Original Grain, a downtown Syracuse eatery that touts its Cali vibes and New York flavors, first began following me on Instagram a few months before its opening in 2016, I was impressed by the team’s new America approach to cuisine. The menu is set up like many of us want to eat in this post-three-squares world. They have bowls, both savory and sweet, some sushi-adjacent nori wraps, and sandwiches that aren’t your boring old burgers, smoothies, and “toasts.” Sounds like the stuff I’ve been agitating for more of for years, right? I mean, avocado toast isn’t necessarily my jam, but it IS pretty.

Once the restaurant opened, and I continued to follow its journey via online buzz, and continued to be intrigued. The interior of the place is light-filled and very, very hip. Even though this is a fast-casual set-up, they’re selling local coffees and hawking the kind of nearly-good for you food that is right up millennial alley. I just had to give it a try.

That chance came a couple weeks ago, when I met my friend Kristina there for lunch on the way up North for the weekend. I was just as captivated by the space in person as I had been via my Instagram app – it’s airy and bright. And I was enthusiastic about the sandwich I ordered: The Ruckus, with short rib, pickled red onion, jalapeno, avocado, and “rad sauce,” on brioche.

My fervor was quelled a bit upon its eating, however. While the beef on the sandwich was tender, it was not flavorful nor particularly juicy. I’m not sure how they’re holding the meat after braising, but it’s certainly not in its own juices and seasonings. The piquant red onion and fresh, thinly sliced jalapeno were a big thumbs up, and I’m a sucker for creamy avocado, but there was no sauce, rad or otherwise on my sandwich, and if that was brioche, I’m a nun. The roll was white, dry and flavorless. I’ll admit, I don’t know what rad sauce is, but maybe it would have saved this sandwich, because what was needed was some salt, pepper, and moisture.

The latte I ordered with it had to be chased to the other end of the store to obtain, but it was strong, smooth, and delicious. I believe the coffee comes from a roaster in Ithaca, which is true to OG’s commitment to everything hipster, and in this case, I approve.

Kristina’s Egg Man toast was prettier, and since it was draped in tons of prosciutto and a five minute egg, delivered much more flavor. It also received its required drizzle of ponzu dressing, for acid and punch, so it won the day. And damn, is it photogenic.

I wish I could have tried more here – the poke bowl was calling my name, and I should have listened – but two women can only eat so much. I’m going to reserve a BHS score for when I’ve sampled more of this menu, if indeed I have the impetus to visit again, but honestly, and despite the lunchtime hoards that descended on Original Grain, I’m not sure it’s for me. While I’m not ready to declare that this café puts style over substance, my lunch did seem to suggest that, and while you guys know I love a pretty Instagram post, it’s not worth sacrificing a delicious meal. I hope most of the food at OG is better than my Ruckus, because I wanted to like it here, but I didn't get the proof of that during my visit. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger! 

Original Grain Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Bashing Out Some Killer 'Cue

It was an honor to be invited to judge the 2017 Binghamton BBQ Bash, a fundraiser for the Family Enrichment Network, at Traditions at the Glen this past weekend. The event was overseen by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, an organization that runs the majority of the most prestigious BBQ competitions in the country. Because the KCBS was running the judging, they gave the local judges on the panel a tutorial on how to judge an official BBQ contest, and boy, do I know my smoked meats now!

The competitors were Big Dipper, Saucy Hog BBQ, The Belmar Pub, Ozzie’s Brisket BBQ, Binghamton Hots, Muffer’s Kitchen, Marilu’s Catering, and Smokey Legend Gourmet BBQ.

Our judging was double blind, meaning the entries were received, renamed, and then renamed again so that we didn’t know where the food in front of us came from and could be completely unbiased in our assessment of appearance, taste, and texture.

There were quite a few rules insofar as the mechanics of judging went, beginning with the mandate that we not wear sunglasses, with a hilarious BBQ oath in the middle, and a directive on how to arrange our water bottles before we were done. But learning the ropes from the pros was really fun. We judged in two categories: meats and sides. Smokey Legend Gourmet BBQ took home the judges’ prize for Grand Champ BBQ, while Marilu’s Catering won Best Side Dish for its hot potato salad. I also really like Muffer’s Kitchen’s corn bread, with its little chunks of fresh corn, but I know some of the judges felt like it was too cake-y, without enough cornmeal in the mix to count as corn bread.

Smokey Legend’s brisket was almost overwhelmingly seasoned with black pepper and cumin when I tasted what they were serving to the event attendees after our judging was over, but if its offering was one of the two I liked best when judging; it was moist, tender but not mushy, and really beefy.  The baked beans from Smokey Legend were not my cup of tea however – too much ketchup flavor in there made them too tangy without enough depth for me.

The Family Enrichment Network provides supportive services for the optimal development of children and families, running head start programs, community clinics, special education services and even food programs. What a wonderful organization to support on a sunny, not-too-hot Saturday, and I’m so grateful to have met all the certified KCBS judges from around New York State – we had lots of good foodie conversation in our tent before the judging got underway. Congrats to all the winners! What your favorite local BBQ?